HONG KONG, March 18 — She has been writing for 28 years in her native South Korea, but Kyung-sook Shin said she feels like a newcomer again after becoming the first woman to win Asia’s top literary prize.
The South Korean author beat a strong field to win the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize on Thursday with her novel Please Look After Mom, about a family’s guilty soul-searching after the disappearance of their elderly mother.
“I feel like doors have opened both as a female writer and as a South Korean writer,” she told AFP in an interview Friday.
Shin, 49, is also the first South Korean to be shortlisted for the prize.
“I feel like a new, emerging writer again, and this will give me fresh energy in my work,” she said. Despite her success at home — Please Look After Mom has already sold nearly two million copies in South Korea — Shin said the US$30,000 (RM102,000) award for her English-language debut enabled her to witness how “books can cross boundaries”.
“It’s a new freedom — more freedom to be the kind of writer I can be. It’s good for Korea and good for women,” she said.
The novel is now set to be published in 32 countries, thanks also to its translator, Chi-Young Kim, who received US$5,000 in prize money.
The book sold more than 100,000 copies in the United States just a few days after its debut last year. Judges said the novel stood-out in a strong shortlist of seven authors that included China’s Yan Lianke and Japan’s Banana Yoshimoto.
Panel chairwoman and BBC correspondent Razia Iqbal said it was a “beautiful, poignantly told tale... a very intimate portrait of a family’s search for their mother” but it was also “a portrait of Korea”.
The book has won high praise for its illustration of change in a post-war Korean society pursuing urbanisation and economic success, which it weaves into a narrative centred on family and loss.
Recent decades have seen South Korea’s economy described as a “miracle” of development and viewed as a model for other emerging nations.
Free elections in 1987 brought years of dictatorial rule to an end, helping unleash an economy that now exports everything from electronics to pop music.
Shin is regarded one of the prominent writers of the so-called “386 Generation” — a broadly left-leaning generation born in the 1960s who in the 1980s were seen as instrumental to the democracy movement.
“That generation was a good force for change,” Shin said.
“As a writer I don’t like being grouped into something, but the term does describe who I was as part of that generation.”
Since then South Korea’s economic development has raced ahead, but such progress has come at a price, said Shin. It’s an issue that lies at the heart of Please Look After Mom, a reflection on what gets lost along the path to progress.
“Korea has become a society that is more about the ‘self’ than before. Things are changing so rapidly, even in the past five years,” she said.
“The change is so fast that people don’t take in what’s happening. That’s why the mother in the book is from the older generation. As much as the family have lost their mother, we are losing that older generation.”
She said it was a universal theme that “on the road to modernity we lose humanity along the way”. The book draws parallels with Shin’s own story.
She left her parents’ farm behind when she was a teenager to move to Seoul, where she worked in an audio equipment factory by day and attended night school in the evenings before graduating from university.
Since then she has gone on to become one of South Korea’s most widely read and decorated authors.
And thanks to her success with the Man Asia prize, she will soon find herself with even more new readers.
“I don’t feel any fear or pressure — I feel a lot more free because writing this book gave me so much,” she said. “In itself, it has been kind of a mother to me.” — AFP-Relaxnews